Digitally driven courts will be critical to the continued administration of justice during the pandemic and beyond.
This was the conclusion of Chief Justice, Dame Janice Pereira during her address at the beginning of the 2022 law year of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court’s (ECSC) efforts in this regard.
She asked the rhetorical question, what justice would look like in five or ten years.
“It is, I think, fair to say that as COVID-19 lingers on and even beyond the pandemic, digitally driven courts would be critical to the continued administration of justice,” she noted, adding, “Courts around the world have arrived at the same conclusion, that digitally operated courts and services are here to stay, even when the pandemic, hopefully, becomes a distant memory.”
Her speech and others were delivered under the theme: “The ECSC Re-imagining the Justice System in the era of COVID-19 and beyond”.
The Chief Justice said this recognises that a modern and responsive judicial system is “at the core of all social and economic development.”
Recalling the court’s activities of the past year, another year in the midst of a pandemic, she described a situation where the court was able to keep on par with pre-pandemic figures.
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closing of borders and national lockdowns, the court remained as busy as ever, with a heavy case load, by continuing to provide the needed access to justice system which was achieved mainly through virtual operations,” she disclosed.
Pereira outlined the figures for the Court of Appeal, a court which examines convictions, sentences and decisions of the lower courts that have been contested by parties in the cases – criminal or civil.
The court heard 351 appeals over four court sittings and a further 437 in Chamber. It delivered 324 decisions in total: 66 written judgements, and 258 oral decisions.
“These figures are on par with the pre-pandemic data from 2019,” she explained, and the Chief Justice anticipates that a more detailed annual report, including the data from Magisterial and High Court levels will soon be available on the ECSC website.
In the past year the court has focused on the embracing of e-litigation portals. The portal has been described in the past as an integrated e-filing and Case Management web-based application which will provide court users and all stakeholders with access to assigned services anytime, anywhere and on any device.
The Chief Justice disclosed that 2021 came with the achievement of a “significant milestone” in the “…completion of the first phase of implementation of the portal for all nine Member States, Territories.”
“Just as recently as October in 2021 we officially welcomed to the portal the final two member states of the Commonwealth of Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines,” she said.
The second phase will involve the expansion of the type of matters filed and managed in the portal to include Family, High Court, and criminal matters.
“I have no doubt that this expansion will be a much welcome development leading to speedier resolution of cases and greater cost savings to many more court users,” the Chief Justice stated.
Pereira revealed that plans are also underway to “re-imagine” the justice court system at the magisterial level.
“Many may not realise that the Magistrate’s Court across the length and breadth of the OECS deal with the majority of court cases. We must therefore never discount the significant role that the Magistrate’s Courts play in the administration of justice in our region.”
Therefore, the second phase of the e-litigation portal expansion will include efforts to accommodate matters filed in the Magistrate’s Court.
There are also provisions being made for remote hearings of magisterial matters.
“This simply means that those member states and territories which do not yet have video links established in their Magistrate’s Courts are encouraged to be quick in putting these in place,” she stated.
The ECSC also turned its attention to the court’s stance in the face of disasters such as the eruptions of La Soufrière volcano.
“We thought it fit to have in place an emergency plan for enabling a measure of continued court operations, and so in April 2021 we revoked the COVID-19 emergency measures practice direction number 5 of 2020 and issued the ECSC Emergency Measures Practice Direction number one of 2021,” she said.
“This new practice direction is broader in scope than its predecessor and seeks to regulate the practice and procedure of a court which has been affected by a situation, occurrence or disaster. This includes acts of God, force majeure…” or any other event deemed to be an emergency by the state/territory.
This move has the effect of allowing the location from which a judge, master or registrar conducts a remote hearing “to be deemed a court for the purpose of conducting court proceedings.”
However, it is noted that the court has not solely been involved in ICT efforts in 2021. The Chief Justice updated on one of their efforts outside of this, concerning court connected mediation. The ECSC is now putting in place a framework for the introduction of a regime of court connected mediation in criminal matters whereas before it concerned only civil matters.